On May 4, at an Andersen job site on Fourth and Montgomery street, a female apprentice of color found a rope noose.
At TCM Corp, a subcontractor to Andersen, her company foreman said it was "probably a joke" and did nothing about the incident. An Andersen foreman, who said he would address it at a foreman's meeting, later said he had "forgotten about it."
The apprentice took it down herself and reported it, which led to a local coalition called the Metropolitan Alliance for Workforce Equity (MAWE) calling for a commitment to address hostile construction job sites in the region. MAWE was joined by large construction employers, trades unions, and other industry leaders, and a Safe from Hate task force was born to stop such harassment from happening again. They developed a four-point pledge as a rallying cry to change the culture in construction:
- We will enforce a zero-tolerance policy.
- We will continue to work with our community partners to support and recruit diverse talent.
- We will implement and expand positive job site culture education on all our job sites.
- We will cultivate retention and leadership development efforts.
"Now more than ever, our industry needs to understand how damaging and dangerous a hostile culture is and that we can do better," said Afton Walsh of Walsh Construction. "A diverse and inclusive workforce starts with a job site where everyone feels safe. Walsh is fully committed to the Safe from Hate Jobsite Culture initiative. We will work with our industry peers to implement real change across the region."
Women make up just 4% of the 23,000 construction workers in the Portland area. People of color account for 20%. Speaking up by minorities, and for minorities, has been an uphill struggle.
As a person of color, Maurice Rahming, who runs O'Neill Construction Group with his wife Ali, is often called upon to talk about the minority experience in the electrical trade and construction in general. He's also the co-chair of MAWE. He said Andersen was "very responsive" to the cause,
Historically, young, male construction workers were persuaded to take safety on the job site seriously as a matter of self-preservation. From hardhats and gloves to harnesses, Personal Protective Equipment has become so common that when COVID-19 came along, it was not a big stretch for them to start using hand sanitizer and staying six feet apart where possible.
The same can happen with intimidation in the workplace.
Rahming says the noose in the workplace is just one form of intimidation to get people off the job site. It is usually a white-on-black gesture. It doesn't necessarily mean, "We are going to hang you."
It's usually a first step. After that, the targeted person becomes wary. They might not feel safe up a scissor lift because they know they could be "accidentally" made to fall.
White workers will sometimes target minorities because they feel they are taking the jobs away from them. "Or when a wrench falls from on high and drops two feet in front of someone (a person of color), it's a warning."
Rahming says people often feel they have no one to turn to and quit for their own safety.
One way it can be done is by the contractor setting the tone early one.
"Before you even set foot on the job site, they have their orientation, and they say their rules. For example, the safety procedure, they say 'This job is 100 percent PPE.' Or if it's an occupied hospital, how to deal with the population. Or if it's an airport, the rules about driving on the runway."
Similarly, Rahming said they could address intimidation.
"'If you are going to draw swastikas in the portapotty with your Sharpie, you are never going to work on one of my projects again.' That type of thing. Right off the bat, you lay that out. 'This is unacceptable.'"
"If we had contractors who would stand up to this, I think there are people that don't feel like they have the tools or the ability to do this, so they shy away," he said. "They don't want the persona of being the one to confront them. My hope with this document is to give those people the tools."
Rahming praised Gerry Hines at Hoffman Construction for the vibe at the Multnomah County Courthouse project at the west end of the Hawthorne Bridge.
"A lot of times with minorities, they put their heads down and do their work. On that project, I saw so many minorities with their heads held high. And that was probably one of the more diverse worksites in the city I've seen." He said it was the bystander training that made it transformative. People felt there was an expectation that everyone would be respected, and they could speak up if not.
"People say, 'Oh, just ignore it.' Or you go into the bathroom, and people get really artistic with their messages."
When a minority is dissed or abused, there's a temptation to say nothing or actively hush it up, to not cause trouble. Bystander training includes interventions. One tactic for intervention in a verbal spat is to step in and say to the aggressor, 'I think you left the lights of your truck on in the parking lot. "And they go away and check. Because everybody has a truck."
According to Willy Myers, executive secretary of the Columbia Pacific Building Trades: "The Labor movement has long stood for equity and justice: we are committed to ensuring all workers on jobsites feel safe, welcome and protected in the industry. Our workers and our community deserve nothing less and leaders in the trades unions are committed to ensuring real change."
The group is now expanding to include all regional industry leaders and convening a Zoom meeting to discuss action steps on Oct. 1.
Changing hearts and minds
Gerry Hein is Hoffman Construction's Project Director on the Multnomah County Central Courthouse, which should be complete next month.
Hein oversaw the first use of the Greed Dot program in the construction industry. Green Dot was first used in the military and college campuses to fight bullying, harassment and hazing. Hein helped negotiate the project labor agreement and made Green Dot part of the project labor agreement. He also helped find social influencers on the job site, which had a peak of over 400 workers, to train in the tactics of Green Dot. Intervention techniques include distraction, delegation and another was direct action. Social influencers were allowed to decide when behavior crossed their line, to avoid the impression of a top-down, unpopular, zero-tolerance policy.
"It really was a differentiator because it set the tone," Hein told the Business Tribune. "What we were trying to do is change the culture of that specific job site. Green Dot is about changing the culture for a group of people that work together."
He says a construction job site is "its own little cultural community," and Hoffman was trying to get people to understand that certain behaviors are not okay and that workers can improve their own workplace culture.
For example, he said male workers might touch a female coworker while trying to help them, and don't realize it is likely unwanted contact.
The program's goal is to diversify the construction trade, which has a skilled worker shortage due to retirement and is not attracting or retaining many skilled women and minorities who feel unwelcome, disrespected or unheard.
"We wanted to eliminate those actions that would result in harmful feelings, that a worker might say, 'Hey, you know, life's too short. I don't need to be here.'"
He added, "Construction can be a great career. And we can make it be a great career for people that don't look like us, white males that mat may be the traditional construction worker. Diversity is really important in our industry."
"Also, There's always been for young, white males in the apprentice world, a fairly high degree of hazing as an aspect of adopting your training. It goes with becoming part of fraternal orders. There was a time when that was sort of the rite of passage for us. Many of us probably traditionally thought all this is just a joke. It's not a joke for some people."
Hein says 15-minute awareness training videos are not necessarily bad, but they don't change workplace culture. Productivity increases "if people actually feel that the place where they work cares about them. The construction industry can't afford to continue to lose people. It takes a long time to learn a trade, and there are so many opportunities for a person to either find success or to say, this isn't for me. Let's not make the reason they leave be that the workplace was a bad experience."
Just because Green Dot has started with big projects and major companies such as Hoffman, he doesn't think that means it will trickle down to smaller contractors or job sites.
"I don't believe in trickle-down anything. I hope we change the hearts of some construction workers, and they carry that to the next project. If we give them the tools to not ignore things on one job site, hopefully, they will take that to the next site, but it helps if it is a supportive site."
He cites a pipefitter at the courthouse project who finally got it.
"He's a pretty traditional worker guy, in the trade for a long time and what really struck him was understanding 'If we don't get a diversity of young people in the labor force, who's going to pay for my retirement?'"
Hein stressed pledges are just a first step.
"We have to change the job site culture, and you do that by changing the hearts of the workers. Green Dot is a method of changing both hearts and culture. We can pledge all we want to pledge. At the worker level, it doesn't change how people act. But Green Dot is the difference between a pledge and really taking direct action to make change."
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